Friday, November 30, 2007

Sentience - A Natural Result?

Reports in The Ecologist and National Geographic reports that crows are carrying walnuts in their beaks to intersections, wait for the traffic light to turn red, drop the walnuts and after the cars run over the nuts, fly down and pick out the walnut meat. The National Geographic continues, stating that crows can make tools - and not just by accident. They create two different tools, depending upon the need. Apparently crows are as smart as chimpanzees, and studies seem to show that actually, crows are better at making tools than chimpanzees.

In addition, studies show dogs can map language. Great apes have been taught to communicate using sign language. We know that some animals can lie (recall, for instance, the article "Lemurs can be liars, if they think you want their food" in the May 2006 issue of Monitor on Psychology).

So, if planets are a natural consequence of the laws of physics (especially gravity) given a debris field, and life a natural consequence of the laws of physics and chemistry given liquid water, common basic organic molecules (found everywhere in space, from nebulae to comets), and an energy source, is sentient life a consequence of the laws of biology given a "boring" enough environment (see "Universal Biologies - Order from Chaos," and "Sentient Life" post)?

This is not to say that the universe is teeming with sentient life. While life is probably fairly common, most of it will be microbial type. Even with Earth's history, microbes account for most of the timeline for life. While catastrophic events can (and have, on the Earth) wipe out larger life forms, microbial forms are the most likely to survive.

Microbes can even survive being blasted into space; for example, if a large meteor hits a planet, large chunks of the planet can be launched into space. If one of those chunks hits another planet - life may be seeded there. Some feel that maybe that has happened between Mars and the Earth: some say life may have started on Mars first, then spread to the Earth (making Mars the garden of eden, and it did have a much wetter and warmer past), others say the reverse.

In addition, some environments are probably too harsh for large, complex life forms to evolve, or greatly slow down the evolutionary process (increasing the chances for a large enough catastrophe to set the evolutionary clock back).

But, life will find a way, and where there is life, there is hope. Thus, I believe sentient life is a natural potential - it will result if given a chance. But it won't be as common as, well, "common," or lower, life forms.

References:

Dingfelder, S. "Lemurs can be liars, if they think you want their food."
Monitor on Psychology. Vol 37, No. 5 (May 2006). 10. Can also be found at <http://www.apa.org/monitor/may06/lemurs.html> (as of 1 December 2007).

Owen, James. "Crows as Clever as Great Apes, Study Says."
National Geographic News. 9 December 2004. 1 December 2007. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1209_041209_crows_apes.html>

Pickrell, John. "Crows Better at Tool Building Than Chimps, Study Says." National Geographic News. 23 April 2003. 1 December 2007. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/04/0423_030423_crowtools.html>

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Planets, planets everywhere

Watching the "Alien Planets" episode of the History Channel's Universe program, we learn an interesting discovery: planets around a pulsar (for example PSR B1257+12). That should be impossible - a pulsar is what is formed after a massive supernova explosion, an explosion so powerful that any planets should be destroyed. However, three small rocky planets were found. What they now hypothesize is that these are planets that formed from the debris of the destroyed orignial planets. If this is so, then this is more proof that planets can form even under extreme conditions; gravity wants to clump debris together, it is a natural consequence of matter and gravity. Thus, planets are probably very, very common.

By the way, life on a planet around a pulsar is very unlikely - there is far too much radiation flooding the system, especially if the planet happens to be in the way of the emission beams from the pulsar's magnetic poles.

Reference:

Pennsylvania State University. "Scientists announce smallest extra-solar planet yet discovered." 10 February 2005. 29 November 2007. <http://live.psu.edu/story/10180>

Wolszczan, A. (1994). "Confirmation of Earth Mass Planets Orbiting the Millisecond Pulsar PSR B1257+12". Science 264 (5158): 538 – 542.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Meanings of Color

Some more contemplations on color and culture. Color can be useful for helping to distinguish between unripe, ripe, and overripe fruit; threaten or warn; distinguish between types of prey (which kind of beetle is tastier); and attracting mates; to mention but a few uses, and thus reasons for, the ability to see in many colors. For creatures who can see in color and find it useful, and who develop advanced sentience (including the ability to think in abstract terms), there is a probability that they will assign metaphorical meanings to color as well.

Some of this was mentioned in the Color of Life post; think of what various colors mean to us: yellow means warmth, light, day, energy - it is a positive color; red is connected to blood, and often means life, and from spilled blood, sacrifice or death; blue is a color of coolness, water, and sky; black is the color of night, mystery, and death, and of course green is for food, sustenance, fertility, serenity, and life.

Around different stars, these colors could easily take on other meanings. Around a hot blue star, blue may not be a color of coolness. The sky may very well be blue, with a brighter blue spot for the sun - which could be interesting. Think about what if our sky was yellow? Our yellow sun would be this bright part of the yellow sky, a bright spot that moved. Maybe we wouldn't be able to tell exactly the boundaries of the sun and so not, at first, recognize it as a self contained body circling the Earth, but instead just a brightness that moves across the sky.

So too, possibly, for some planets circling a blue star (a B class star - O class stars are also blue, but being the most massive stars in the universe, nd can not form planets due to the photoevaporation effect). Blue stars tend to be extremely hot and bright - the star would be this large very bright blue spot in the sky, the sky being a gradient from somewhat darker blue at the horizon, moving to lighter and brighter blue at the center of the bright day light. The world would be bathed in blue. Plants could be fuchsia, or even purple, in color. Oceans would have fuchsia or purple algae like plants in it, giving the seas there a violet or purple tint.

It is possible that some planets around F-stars would be home to plants with blue and blue related hues. Creatures trying to conceal themselves would develop blue skin colorations (Andorians?). That could either elevate blue to some mythic status, or because it is so common, other, more rare, colors would hold greater value.

Another possible result may be that some creatures, especially the carnivores, may find being color blind an advantage - with everything awash in blue, the ability to detect differences in brightness and texture would become more important than color itself (see the post Color Blindness Advantages - What Drives Color Range? for more information). Maybe blues would be seen in grayscale, while the other, more rare, colors are seen as they are. To such beings, the day time sky would appear a bright light grey, with the night sky black - and as the day turns to night, the sky changes in a sliding gradient from very light grey to ever darkening grey, and finally to black.

On a planet with black plants (possibly on a planet circling a dim, red class M star, the most common star in the universe), black could come to represent life (literally to the primitive sentient mind and metaphorically to the advanced sentient mind) - the opposite of how many Earthlings view the color. And if black was food, sustenance, fertility, and thus life - then what of the black night sky? Think of how such a planet would look to human explorers - say a somewhat dim red sun in the sky (giving the appearance of constant approaching evening), in a crimson, fuchsia or magenta sky (*), bathing black plants with reddish light - what a demonic place it would appear to human eyes, a Dante planet. Yet, to the natives, those would be the colors that would bring peace, and calmness - it would be the colors of home. Red would mean life, as well as black. The night sky would be as important, color-wise, as the day sky. Space would always have this connection to plants, to food, to sustenance - even if subconsciously. So maybe such creatures would be less fearful of space - they would find a comfort being surrounded by the blackness like some people on Earth feel when in a heavily forested mountain, or dense tropical jungle - surrounded by the color of life.

Would primitive aliens on such a planet think of the night sky as being a large plant leaf that blocks the sun (but, like all leaves, has imperfections, imperfections that allow some light to sneak through - star light)? One of their gods could then be a plant god. And since plants need the sun, this is not an evil god, just one that is taking its turn soaking up some sun. Or maybe it is an evil plant-god (some plants are poisonous, after all) fighting with the planet's creatures for the life-giving rays of the sun, a battle that occurs every day-night cycle (ancient humans thought somewhat similar battles went on between the Sun and the Moon - brought to terrifying climax with solar eclipses, which gave the appearance of the Moon eating the Sun, and to which primitive humans tried to help the Sun by banging on drums or shooting arrows in the air at the Moon to drive the Moon away - which of course always worked!)


* Depending upon how much blue light the star also radiates, and how much ozone is in the atmosphere to scatter that blue light- while an M-star radiates red most strongly in the visual range, it doesn't mean it does not radiate any other color.

References:

Berman, Bob. "Sky Lights." Discover Magazine. 23 Feb. 2007. Web. 22 Nov. 2007. <http://discovermagazine.com/2003/jun/featsky>.

"Breakthrough Method System for Understanding Ocean Plant Life." Earth Observation News. 1 Mar. 2005. Web. 22 Nov. 2007. <http://news.eoportal.org/research/050301_unicalifornia.html>.

"Extraterrestrial Landscaping." Discover. July 2007. 15. Print.


Meadows, Vikki. "Colors of Alien Plants." Astrobiology Magazine. 1 Oct. 2007. 22 Nov. 2007. <http://www.astrobio.net/news/article2477.html>.

Vu, Linda. "Planets Prefer Safe Neighborhoods." Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer Science Center. 3 Oct. 2006. Web. 23 Aug. 2008. <http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/Media/happenings/20061003/>.

The Lost Regeneration

Most members of the animal kingdom can regenerate lost body parts at some (or all) of their life cycle. Mammals aren't one of those animals. Yet, scientists say the pathway (called the Wnt pathway) still exists, untapped, in mammalians.

Before we start speculating on alien sentient beings being able to routinely sprout new appendages (or like Jeebs, the hapless alien in MIB I and II, a new head), the question that first needs to be pondered is why have mammalians lost, or suppressed, this ability. On the surface, it seems like it would be evolutionary advantageous to retain this ability. Yet apparently it was also advantageous to lose it. Even among creatures that can regenerate, many of them can not do so when adults. This seems to indicate that there must be some problems with regeneration, especially with advanced life forms.

It is obvious we do not fully understand all the parameters regarding regeneration. However, the fact remains the Wnt pathway still exists, latently, but exists in at least some higher mammals. Thus, maybe it is not far-fetched to think there could be sentient aliens with at least some regenerative abilities. In addition, since Earth scientists are looking to restart this latent ability (and have had some success with adult frogs and chicken embryos), it is a distinct possibility that other alien sentient beings could work on restarting any latent regeneration they may have, and may be successful, either as medical procedure, or as a full time reacquired ability.

However, the more advanced the creature, the more there are limitations to the regeneration - that only makes sense. Simple structures are easier to rebuild, with less chance for mistakes. Not so for complex structures. Simple structures require less energy to rebuild than complex structures. Simple structures can rebuild faster. And finally, simple creatures tend to less centralized, the less centralized they are, the easier they can live without a part of themselves. Complex creatures tend to have rather centralized controls. Which brings us to an important point: there are structures that just can't be regenerated - such as a heart, or brain. How can a mammalian body naturally survive a missing heart even if it has the ability to regenerate? The body cannot survive long enough without a heart to give time enough for another heart to regenerate. Same with a brain - if the entire brain is dead or missing, the body cannot continue functioning long enough to allow for regeneration to complete (and even if a creature could regenerate a new head, ala Jeebs in MIB, how could it retain all its knowledge and memories?).

So, how would this affect culture, if we could routinely regenerate missing ears, noses, arms, or legs? For one, it would prolong life - for instance, amputations due to illness would be a temporary set back as the body regrows a healthy new appendage. Maybe more people would be greater risk takers, since the risk of death or permanent dismemberment or disfigurement is lowered (cosmetic surgery? Just remove the offending area, and let a new area grow back). But it also may make war or violence even more common place, since soldiers could be more easily resent back into battle (wars of attrition would take much longer). Of course repeated violence, repeated being torn apart and regrowing must have an affect on the brain, especially on the mental "adaptation" to such a "life." This would also affect culture.

The tougher question is how would it affect theology? What kind of theology would an alien race that had strong natural regenerative powers have?

Reference:

Casselman, Anne. "How to Grow a New Limb." Discover. October 2007. 17.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Astronomers Say Moons Like Ours Are Uncommon - How Important is That?


The Uncommon Moon?

ScienceDaily (2007-11-22) -- The next time you take a moonlit stroll, or admire a full, bright-white moon looming in the night sky, you might count yourself lucky. New observations suggest that moons like Earth's -- that formed out of tremendous collisions -- are uncommon in the universe, arising at most in only five to ten percent of planetary systems.

<http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071121184530.htm>

A Large 5 Percent

Though 5 to 10 percent of billions of planets is still a large number of planets with large moons (the size of the Moon is so large in comparison with the Earth, it leads some to speak of the Earth and the Moon as a Earth-Moon system, or a double planet).

However, this is an important issue when discussing, speculating, on alternative extrasolar biological, psychological, theological and societal realities that could exist.


Protector Moon


Firstly, how important is a large moon to the rise of, and sustainability of, life on a planet? Some say the moon, by its size, helps protect the Earth from large meteor bombardment. That is debatable. One could actually argue that the Earth protects the Moon more than the Moon protects the Earth since the Earth is larger than the Moon, and hence a bigger target and a larger "attractant" due to its larger gravity. Also, one could also argue that the Moon also increases the chances of meteors coming close, by adding its gravitational pull (think of the Earth and Moon as one system: add up the gravitational attraction it would have on passing meteors). Additionally, while the Moon is large, it is separated by 250,000 miles. The further away you hold a large shield from you, the less of a shield it becomes. When a meteor heads towards the Earth, the Moon would have to be pretty much in the direct path. Remember, the gravity pull of the Earth is several times larger than the Moon's - in a tug a war between the Earth and the Moon over a meteor, I would lay bets on the Earth "winning."

So while the Moon may give the Earth some protection, it may not give us as much as we think. But, it may have been enough. Let us say that without the Moon's protection, we would've experienced only one additional large meteor impact over the history of the planet to date. That one additional impact would easily change the course of sentient development on Earth - most likely delaying it by millions of years. And quite possibly changing the final face of the sentient creature that did eventually evolve.




Stabilizer Moon


Secondly, the size of the Moon does help keep the Earth from being too wobbly on its axis. This helps keep the seasons from being overly dramatic, which would make it more difficult for complex life to arise (though, I would argue, not impossible, but probably would prolong its rise, and thus delay the rise of sentient life).



Tidal Moon


Thirdly, the Moon affects the tides on Earth. A smaller moon would have a much smaller effect, and without a moon, there would be an even small effect (the Sun would have an effect, but only 1/3 of the effect the Moon presently has). The tides have profound effects on the Earth - mainly from erosion which helps mix chemicals, especially for the young Earth (when the Moon was closer and had a much more dramatic effect on the tides).

By the way, did you know that this tidal affect is also responsible for pushing the Moon slowly away from us? The Earth is rotating faster (essentially 29 times faster) than the Moon orbits around it. This causes the high tide to move ahead of the Moon. Recall that a high tide is a bulge in the oceans of the Earth facing the Moon (and directly opposite of it). This bulge has mass, and thus gravity; this added gravity tugs on the Moon - but since it is slightly ahead of the Moon (due to the Earth rotating faster than the Moon orbits) - this tiny gravitational tug pulls on the Moon, accelerating it. The result of this constant tug is that the Moon is slowly accelerating, and thus spiraling away from the Earth. As time passes, the Moon will get further and further away (though as it gets further away, the Moon will have lesser effect on the tides, which will thus mean that the resulting acceleration would decrease - but not to zero, the Moon will continue to spiral away). So for those that remark at how miraculous it is that the Moon is the same apparent size in the sky as the Sun need to recall that it hasn't always been that way, nor will it stay that way (plus the Moon isn't exactly the same apparent size as the Sun - but it is very close to it).

Another result of the above is that the energy for the acceleration of the Moon comes at a cost to the Earth: it's angular momentum decreases. The result for this is a lengthening day. Some calculate that billions of years ago the Earth spun much faster, and without any moon, a full day today would be around 8 hours instead of 24. This faster spinning Earth could also have much stronger winds as well. Life would look a bit different on a planet that had stronger winds, a shorter day, and smaller (but more frequent) tides.

Moon Cult(ure)

Not having a moon would definitely have affects on the culture and theology of a sentient race. Think of how strongly our Moon plays into many of our primitive theologies and myths. But another consideration is how the dark skies would affect the alien race as well: darker skies would mean more attention paid to the stars, but I think an even stronger effect is that having a large moon so close to us may have encouraged us as a species to think about exploring space sooner than we would've otherwise. Without a moon, there is nothing close enough to explore - for thousands of years, the planets were just thought of as wandering stars. The only other physical body was the moon. Without the Moon, it would be quite some time before we would realize there are other physical bodies besides the Earth. Without a moon, there would not be that stepping stone that we enjoy - going to the Moon is far easier than going to Mars. It gives us a chance to learn, experiment, and gain experience before heading off to more arduous and more difficult explorations.

Habitable Moons

One way a habitable planet may have some of the benefits of a large moon without having a moon orbiting it, is for the planet to be a large moon itself, and circling a gas giant. While that gas giant would surely attract more than its share of meteors, the orbiting moons are so very small compared to the parent planet, that most would probably miss the moons. Not all, of course, but no planet or moon is totally safe from meteors.

Let's say a planet about the size of the Earth was circling a planet the size of Jupiter. There would definitely be tides! And as we see with our own system, giant planets are like a solar system themselves: ringed by many captured moons. A habitable "moon" circling such a gas giant would have many near by physical neighbors to visit, explore, and colonize (or base stations on). Such a civilization may be more even encouraged to explore space than our own.

Gas Giant Theology

And what a god the gas giant would probably play in their primitive theologies! Would they look up in the sky filled, at times, completely by the gas giant, and think "is that heaven" or "is that hell?"

A Downside

Actually, that may be a downside - orbiting such a large planet would mean periods where the sun would be blocked by the gas giant, and day and night would both be dark (with part of that darkness without even any nighttime stars). Though the times the moon was in front of the gas giant (between the planet and the sun), the night would be ruled by the reflected sunlight off of the planet's cloud tops. Life has adapted to life above the arctic and antarctic circles here on Earth, with their months long days and months long nights, so life could easily adapt to orbiting a gas giant - though the orbiting moons may well have such fast orbiting periods (for one thing, as big as Jupiter is, it is still much smaller than the sun) that these periods of full light and full darkness would be short - Io orbits Jupiter in under two days, while Europa orbits in under 4 days. Leda and Himalia have the longest orbiting periods for a Jovian moon: just over 238 days for Leda and 250 for Himalia. Nights (where the sun is totally blocked by Jupiter) on those moons are probably around one or two months long (haven't worked out the exact numbers; the distance from Jupiter is a factor - a theoretical moon with an orbit of 250 days at 600,000 Km from Jupiter would have a longer day long nights than another moon with the same orbit, but at 11,480,000 Km away. The shadow of a planet is not a cylinder, but a cone, it gets more narrow the further out it goes).

The Phase Lock Waltz

Another thing to consider is if the orbiting moon is in phase lock with the planet - the rotation period the same as its orbital period, thus ensuring one side always facing the planet it is orbiting. Our Moon is like this - we only see one side of the Moon from Earth. Those living on the far side of the orbiting moon would never see the gas giant (well, if they stayed near the equator. If they moved some distance north or south of the equator, they would begin to see the top, or bottom, of the gas giant over the horizon). They would have a long day, followed by a long night. Those on the near side would always face the gas giant. Most of their daylight would be the reflected light off the gas giant, though as the moon orbited the planet, those living on the near side would get short glimpses of the sun - it wouldn't rise high in the sky, however. And then they would experience a starless night (though for the same reason they would get a short glimpse of the sun before or after night, they would get a short glimpse of a star filled night sky after or before night).

Phase Lock Theologies

It would be interesting to entertain what kind of mythologies would arise on the near side and on the far side of such a world. For the near side, a massive god before them, and a bright god that flirtatiously appears once during the short year, and a star filled sky half a year later. For the far side, the bright god of the day, but this looming god just over the horizon, peaking over. And then there's the many small moons whizzing by, some below, some above the world - what to make of them? Also, would such a world figure out sooner than we did that the universe doesn't orbit around the habited world?

More Downsides

Another downside to orbiting a gas giant could be the intense radiation belt surrounding the giant planet. Io, a moon of Jupiter, orbits closer to the Jupiter's cloud tops than the Moon orbits the Earth. Jupiter has massive radiation belts, and Io cuts through them, causing Io not only to be bathed in high levels of dangerous radiation, but creating huge currents of electricity that flow along Io's own magnetic field (bathing the moon in auroral glow).

Another downside is that such a "moon" would have greater tides. The closer it circles the gas giant, the greater the tidal forces. It is thought that the tidal energies experienced by the moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn are keeping the cores of the moons heated. There is direct evidence of geological activity at work on many of the moons. For instance, it is thought that tidal forces are what are causing the volcanic activity on Io, and is one of the mechanisms thought to create liquid oceans under the frozen surface of Europa (also a moon of Jupiter).

References:

Comins, Neil F. "What if the Moon Didn't Exist?" The Universe in the Classroom. Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Winter 1996. 25 November 2007. <http://www.astrosociety.org/education/publications/tnl/33/33.html>

"Solar System." Jet Propulsion Lab. 25 November 2007. <http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/solar_system/>

University Of Arizona. "Astronomers Say Moons Like Ours Are Uncommon." ScienceDaily. 22 November 2007. 25 November 2007 <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071121184530.htm>

Tiny DNA Molecules Show Liquid Crystal Phases, Pointing Up New Scenario For First Life On Earth

ScienceDaily (2007-11-23) -- Scientists have discovered some unexpected forms of liquid crystals of ultrashort DNA molecules immersed in water, providing a new scenario for a key step in the emergence of life on Earth.

<http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071122151148.htm>
A key missing step in the process has been discovered - it is felt that the formation of full DNA molecules by random chemistry is essentially impossible, and thus scientists have been searching for more primitive and simpler molecules that would self organize. These, then, could lead to DNA.

This discovery of liquid crystal form of self organizing ultrashort DNA is an amazing discovery. Small repeating patterns combine to build larger repeating patterns which combine to build even larger and more complex patterns. Evolution works fairly quickly with simple organizations, and slows for more complex organizations, as we've seen in a previous post (Sentient Evolution ).

This helps support New York University chemist Robert Shapiro's earlier statement that life began from cyclical reactions involving small molecules: "these reactions would produce compounds that would feed back into the cycle, creating an ever-growing reaction network" (Schirber, Par. 13). The cyclic reactions from the small molecules would eventually create more complex molecules that would be more efficient, replacing the smaller molecules: "the system would learn to make slightly larger molecules" (Schirber, Par. 15). This is the "metabolism first" hypothesis of how life began (the other main thought is that RNA came first).

However life started, there is evidence it started 3.7 billion years ago, and fossilized bacteria found as old as 3.5 billion years. There is evidence that some form of photosynthesis began nearly at the beginning, if not at the beginning. This may indicate yet again that photosynthesis may be one of the more common energy sources for life, especially early life - may even be a common, almost universal, part of the rise of life; thus, the most common life form in the universe may well be simple plants. When the writer of Genesis says God created plant life first, and far before animal life, that writer was right - He didn't dally with the plants.

References:

Genesis 1:10-20.

Schirber, Michael. "How Life Began: New Research Suggests Simple Approach." Animals.
Live Science. 9 June 2006. <http://www.livescience.com/animals/060609_life_origin.html>

University of Colorado at Boulder. "Tiny DNA Molecules Show Liquid Crystal Phases, Pointing Up New Scenario For First Life On Earth."
ScienceDaily. 23 November 2007. 25 November 2007 <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071122151148.htm>.

Color Blindness Advantages - What Drives Color Range?

Color Blind Advantages

A short article in the October issue of Discover explains that sometimes being color blind isn't a bad thing. It was discovered that color-blind capauchins (a species of monkey native to S. America) were more successful at hunting camouflaged insects than capauchins with broader color vision. One hypothesis is that color-blindness actually helps improve the ability to notice differences in texture and brightness, thus being able to better detect camouflaged insects. As a hobby artist, I find that black and white photos sometimes show me more than a full color photo, especially in looking for differences in contrast or brightness - sometimes full color sends too many signals to the brain.

So, in addition to possible alien sentient beings able to perceive only or mainly in the UV range (see previous posts with the tag "alien senses"), or in the infrared, some aliens may see within our range, but be color-blind compared to the average human. Of course, we woul'd be UV-blind (though there have been rare instances of humans being able to see partially into the UV range).

What drives color range?

Sex and food primarily, and possibly detection of enemies. For instance, some researchers feel that first color vision arose because those who evolved the ability to see color were better able to distinguish ripe fruit. As the primates developed, and then improved, their ability to see red and orange, the primates began to develop orange and red hues to their hair and skin (or maybe more accurately, those few primates that had orange or red hair stood out from the others and thus were favored by the primates that were more successful in finding ripe fruit).

Color Tracking, Sports, and Church

Interestingly, humans can normally only keep track of three items at once, but if groups of items are of the same color, then we can keep track of three groups, or sets, of items, and thus keep track of many items at once - as long as the items are grouped in no more than three sets of colors (thus, one reason for team uniforms). Not sure what the benefit is of only three. Why not four or five? But at least our minds can use the "trick" of color to get around that limitation somewhat. Maybe humans hunted packs of animals in packs themselves, but also needed to keep track of their human pack leader (the "alpha wolf"). Thus, team uniforms are very advantageous for the spectator: with the two opposing teams in different colors, and the referees in yet a third color, the spectator can keep track of what is going on far better than if everyone wore whatever they wanted, with no player having the same color scheme as any other player on the field. Sports may not have been the evolutionary pressure to develop this ability to track three sets based on color, but instead an example of how the modern mind takes advantage of the situation.

But if we could answer the question, why three, we may be able to determine the conditions needed for an alien species to develop the ability to track four or five (or just two). The ability to track different items will affect the alien civilization's social, cultural, and theological realities; think about the three again: humans have trouble tracking more than three items at once, and three seems to be a holy number for many of our theologies - coincidence? Maybe for aliens that can track four items at a time with ease, four would be their common holy number. And maybe they would have games involving three teams at once.

References:

American Institute of Physics. "Tracking Your Team." Science Daily. 1 December 2006. 25 November 2007. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/videos/2006/1202-tracking_your_team.htm>

Barone, Jennifer. "The Upside of Color Blindness." Discover. October 2007. 17.

John Hopkins University. "What Are Uniforms Uniform? Because Color Helps Us Track Objects." Science Daily. 24 July 2006. 25 November 2007. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/07/060724105951.htm>

Ohio University. "Color Vision Drove Primates To Develop Red Skin And Hair, Study Finds." Science Daily. 25 May 2007. 25 November 2007. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070524155313.htm>

Sentient Evolution

It seems the more complex the sentient mind, the slower it evolves. Apparently this is because the genes in the complex mind code for proteins that have complex interaction with other molecules in the body: "change a gene too much and it will be unable to continue its existing functions" (Barone, Par. 2). Thus, the more a brain evolves, the slower its evolution becomes. Though some postulate that the recent information revolution, with its explosion of information and rapid technological change may add extra evolutionary pressure on our brains.

Anyway, this may be another reason why sentient life needs long "boring" (no planet-wide catastrophes) stretches of time to develop, and another reason for some to believe that while life itself may be fairly common in the universe, intelligent life may be somewhat (or even very) rare.

I disagree that it would necessarily be rare - hopefully, if a sentient species makes it to space travel, it will begin colonization and thereby increasing the likelihood of its survival as a species. Space colonization would have an evolutionary pressure on the beings - living in different gravity fields, electromagnetic fields, or atmospheric oxygen compositions for instance, may cause evolutionary changes. These changes wouldn't necessitate brain changes, but body adaptation changes (longer or shorter legs, larger lung capacities) which are not as complex changes to make as are changes in the brain.

Of course, that's skirting around the issue a bit - or cheating: a few sentient species spreading throughout the galaxy is not quite the same thing as sentience being a common result of habitable planets.

One result of this (as complexity of the brain increases, evolution of the brain slows) may be that the old, oft used Sci-Fi adage that advanced aliens would be to us as we are to ants may not hold as much water after all. Sure, a species that's been around for a billion years longer than we have, would have an evolutionary leg up on us, but to compare us to ants? Maybe a lemur would be a more appropriate comparison (by the way, there's an interesting article "Lemurs can be liars, if they think you want their food" in the May 2006 issue of Monitor on Psychology. Not so dumb, after all, these lemurs.). And how many billion year old civilizations would their be? And how many of them had continuously advancement (no dark ages, or no catastrophes that set them back)?

I've wondered sometimes if that would be another reason for extraterrestrials to come visit the Earth: a civilization that was a billion years old may very well have forgotten how they came to be - look at how just much we don't know just several thousands of years back in our own history. They may have great curiosity at how a primitive technological civilization begins. Think how intrigued we'd be if we found a planet of somewhat similar looking creatures were in their stone age era. We'd want to observe them, to maybe get some ideas to help us figure out our own past. Sure, there would be differences, but even the differences can teach us something. It is like studying the weather on Venus and Mars - both have extreme difference in weather, but the two planets are similar enough to Earth in other ways as to be very instructive; Venus and Mars are like two experiments that help us to set parameters, or to see certain forces more clearly on them that are also at work on Earth, but not as obviously.

Reference:

Barone, Jennifer. "Not So Fast, Einstein." Data. Discover. October 2007. 12. Print.

Dingfelder, S. "Lemurs can be liars, if they think you want their food." Monitor on Psychology. Vol 37, No. 5 (May 2006). 10. Print. Can also be found at <http://www.apa.org/monitor/may06/lemurs.html> (as of 25 November 2007).

Friday, November 23, 2007

Blackbody Radiation Exercises

No, not talking about a cosmic Jack Lalane (OK, too old of a reference). At my first alma mater, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the physics department has a java applet online that demonstrates why hot stars look blue and cool ones look red using Planck's Law, Wien Law, and Steffan-Boltzmann Law. It calculates the blue-visual and ultraviolet-blue color index, as well as showing where the normalized intensity lies in the ultraviolet - visible - infrared spectrum. This site is found at: <http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/guidry/java/wien/wien.html>.

I found it interesting that as a star gets hotter, its normalized intensity peak lies increasingly in the UV (ultraviolet) range of the spectrum. As stars get cooler, the peak moves toward the infrared, but doesn't get into the infrared except for very cool stars.

This would mean that for hot stars, UV would be the more important wavelength to use, while for cool stars, infrared could have some importance. Our eyes are centered around the normalized peak for the sun, with it's 5,780 K surface temperature, which makes logical sense. For beings on a planet around a blue star, their eyes could be centered in the UV band. They may not even have much use at all for the "visible" part of the spectrum ("visible" to us).

For plants, I wonder if this would mean they would be white, since they'd be using the UV photons for photosynthesis instead of our visible light range they'd reflect back all of the visible (to us) light - thus they would appear white. However, it seems unlikely that UV light photons could conceivably be used for photosynthesis. UV light is very energetic, and thus, for the most part, very damaging to life: UV inhibits photosynthesis in present day Earth plants and it can cause destruction to DNA as well as many proteins and lipids. The shorter the wavelength, the more energetic and the more damaging. However, it is thought that UV was an important source of energy in the creation of life and some viruses, bacterium, and fungal spores are rather highly resistant to UV radiation. However, often times creatures that are highly resistant to UV radiation are resistant because they have developed a mechanism for repairing the damage done by the UV radiation, and not because they can just ignore it.

Thus, there are limits to what carbon-based plant life can tolerate with regards to UV radiation. And for a planet around a particularly hot blue star, life would definitely have to find a way to deal with the UV radiation (here's a thought: if UV is thought to be important to the origin of life, would that mean that life is more likely to originate around blue stars than for other stars?). There are two articles, "Limits of photosynthesis in extrasolar planetary systems for earth-like planets," by S. Frank et al. and "Ultraviolet radiation constraints around the circumstellar habitable zones," by Andrea P. Buccino, et al. which I hope to get my hands on soon. Part of the Habitable Zone equation may not only include the zone where water can be in a liquid state, but also where UV radiation isn't extreme.

Anyway, there are some creatures on Earth that, while using the visible spectrum, also use part of the UV spectrum for vision. Various insects, for instance, can see into the UV spectrum - and some flowers have patterns on their petals that can only be seen in UV light to help attract the insects (to aid in pollination).

What would this mean for alien life? That they may be blind to most, if not all, of our "visible" spectrum, and we to theirs. This is not to say they would be blind, rather they would just find an inside room lit with light bulbs to be rather dim if not completely dark: most fluorescent lamps are designed to give off minimal amount of UV radiation - much less than what could be found out of doors (the mercury vapor in a fluorescent lamp does give off UV radiation, but it then collides with the phosphorus coating on the inside of the bulb, and thus is "converted" into visible light). Some lamps, like LEDs, do not give off any UV radiation. LEDs would be invisible to a being who sees only in the UV range.

This isn't an either/or proposition, of course. Some beings could have eyes sensitive to a large range, with part of their visible spectrum in the UV and part in our visible spectrum. They would be essentially color-blind in that they would see some colors, but not all (for instance, can only see blue and green). Many animals on Earth have limited color range, seeing mainly black and white. Even some humans only see in black and white: more than 5% of the natives of the island Ingelap, in Micronesia, have the rare condition of Monochromasy - total color blindness (Oliver Sacks wrote a book about them, titled The Island of the Colorblind).

Not sure how this would affect the alien's culture or theology, though they would see the night sky differently than we do, seeing patterns that we do not see, which could affect their theology to some degree. It would definitely affect their visual art - painting, drawing, and video. They would work on UV cameras first, and create UV TVs - rather different technology than what we came up with (I wonder how a UV TV would work?). The biggest affect, I believe, would be in the contact between us and them.

Of course, some Sci-Fi movies do have aliens that can only see in infrared or UV, though usually just in infrared, as it makes for more exciting drama to have an alien that can see our body heat - making us stand out like glaring targets, while the alien is concealed to our vision. That would indeed play on our visceral fears, if we knew that our new alien friends can readily see in infrared.

What other problems or difficulties can you think of?

Reference:

"Blackbody Radiation Exercises." Physics Dept., University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 23 November 2007. <http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/guidry/java/wien/wien.html>.

Alien Life on Earth? - And Universal Biologies

In a recent edition of Discover, an article, "Aliens Among Us," asks the question "do we share our planet with alternative forms of life?" (62). Mathematical models indicate that there is a 95% chance that life originated two or more times on the Earth. There is no reason, from natural laws, that life didn't have more than one origin. DNA based life dominated, but that doesn't mean that niches are filled with RNA based life (DNA based life uses RNA, and evolved from RNA based life). At present, most of our methods for detecting life do not look for RNA, they look for DNA instead.

In early Earth history, the Earth would've been bombarded by large planetoids, comets and meteors - some of which may have wiped out early life. Life would've begun again. Why? Why can chemical reactions be predicted if the type and quantity of the chemicals involved are known as well as the environment (temperature, pressure, etc)? Why can large (and thus Newtonian) physical systems be predicted given known values (mass, density, magnetic fields, etc)? Because laws are universal. Given certain range of conditions, life will rise.

Life has great variety on Earth "but at the molecular level they are staggeringly uniform" (62). This doesn't mean that alien life will share the same uniformity as Earth life. But it will probably have its own uniformity. And it does mean that when looking for life, we need to broaden the tool set we use for looking for life. But it also means that here on Earth we need to study all the forms of life that exist here to help us gain an idea of the universal biology laws.

You see, forces all work to find an equilibrium. A star burns because gravity compresses it down, igniting a nuclear furnace. The radiation pressure from that furnace pushes back against the forces of gravity. While they balance, the star burns in an overall steady state. Depending upon mass, the star lives a long life, or a short life, and ends in a supernova or a blackhole (OK, this is a bit oversimplified). This happens over and over again throughout the universe because the forces are everywhere - gravity, light, and electromagnetism, for instance, are common and they react each according to their natures; and because their natures are not random natures, they do not interact randomly: gravity doesn't randomly become light and then magnetism, for instance, and it doesn't randomly change the way it interacts with the universe.

True, constants may actually change over time (there are debates about just how constant constants are), but overall forces have a nature to them, a pattern to them. And patterns interacting with patterns, and you get great variety of results, but it isn't chaos. Same with biology. There will be universal biological laws. And given the right range of conditions, and life will arise again and again in the universe, just like stars die and stars are born, they didn't come into existence only once, to die as a one time occurrence. Galaxies weren't created only once. There is an overall evolution to the universe (change may be the only true constant), but it is a slow evolution, and right now life exists, and we are learning more and more just how tenacious life is. It survives terrible calamities, terrible upsets - particular life forms may not survive, but life itself tenaciously persists.

Reference:

Zimmer, Carl. "Aliens Among Us." Discover. July 2007. 62 - 65. Can also be found at <http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jul/aliens-among-us>.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Color of Life


Image credit: Caltech/Doug Cummings
Scientists, including biometerologist Nancy Kiang of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, have been speculating to the color of alien life in response to the type of star, or even atmosphere, of their planet.

Plant like life would probably be fairly common since starlight is a very useful, and fairly constant source of energy for life to take advantage of. On the Earth, for instance, phytoplankton (microbial plants) are extremely abundant and "provide the basis for most of the marine food chain, half the oxygen in our atmosphere and ultimately much of the life on Earth" ("Breakthrough").

Studying plants on Earth, the scientists discovered something: at first plants seem rather inefficient because they reflect light at its highest energy output - green light. The sun light energy that hits the surface of our planet actually peaks in the green band. However, photosynthesis uses particles (photons) of the light rather than just the energy. The photons peak in the red range. This is because red light penetrates through the atmosphere easier than blue light which gets scattered mainly by atmospheric ozone (which is why the sky looks blue, and the sun appears to be red when it is setting - the light from the setting sun has to travel through more atmosphere than the noon time sun, and the only light that makes it through with the least scattering is red).

But even though blue light is scattered somewhat by our atmosphere, enough still reaches the ground that plants can find it useful; while photosynthesis relies on photons, more energetic photons tend to be more efficient - blue photons are far more energetic than red photons. Though there is a limit as to how much energy a plant can take in. For most Earth plants, concentrating on the peak in the red  range is enough.

By the way, while the sun puts out more light energy in the green band, it looks yellow to us on the surface because, as mentioned above, some of the blue is being scattered by the atmosphere. From space, the sun looks white, but that is because of how our eyes work - when flooded by the entire spectrum, especially from a bright source, our eyes will perceive the source to be white, even if it is not fully white.


Image credit: NASA/Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
Using this information about photosynthesis, Nancy Kiang and her fellow scientists speculated what color life would prefer in alien environments. F-type stars, for instance, are hot blue stars that give off more blue photons than photons of other colors, and definitely far more than the sun. On a planet circling such a star, any plant like organisms that finds the chemistry of photosynthesis to be as useful as do Earth plants (*), then such plant like organisms may want to concentrate on absorbing blue particles. They would probably reflect red and orange, since those wavelengths are of little use (not efficient to use them).

Around cooler, and dimmer, red M-type stars, the light may be so little that plant life will need all the particles they can get, and thus they would reflect little to no light back (black plants - a goth planet!). Even if the plant life used chlorophyll that absorbed mostly in the infrared range (scientists have discovered two types of chlorophyll on Earth that absorb in the infrared range), such plants may want to absorb as much heat as possible. Or for a planet or habitable moon circling a gas giant far from the central sun, with a thick atmosphere (reflecting even more of the blue wavelength that our atmosphere), plants on such a planet may need to use all available light as well. (Note: Apparently solitary - not binary - red dwarf M-type stars are the most common in our galaxy).

What would this mean for sentient cultures? Just that each section of their spectrum could easily have rather different cultural significances or cultural or theological metaphors. Think of what yellow means to us: warmth, light, day, energy - it is a positive color. Red is connected to blood, and often means life, and from spilled blood, sacrifice or death. Blue is a color of coolness, water, and sky. And of course green is for food, sustenance, fertility, serenity, and life.

Around different stars, these colors could easily take on other meanings. Around a hot blue star, blue may not be a color of coolness. The sky may very well be blue, with a brighter blue spot for the sun - which could be interesting. Think about what if our sky was yellow? Our yellow sun would be this bright part of the yellow sky, a bright spot that moved. Maybe we wouldn't be able to tell exactly the boundaries of the sun and so not, at first, recognize it as a self contained body circling the Earth, but instead just a brightness that moves across the sky. So too, possibly, for some planets circling a blue star.

On a planet with black plants, black could come to represent, to the primitive sentient mind, life. And if black was food, sustenance, fertility, and thus life - then what of the black night sky?

And what of a planet that had both blue water and blue plants? The color blue could take on such a huge significance. Maybe even some of the animal life would have blue pigmentation (to blend in with the vegetation, for instance). However, Ms. Kiang feels that totally blue is the least likely color for plants, since blue light has very high energy photons.

Speaking of red stars, class M stars tend to flare more than sun, and more strongly. This can cause problems for life as the flare floods the planets with strong radiation. However, life is tenacious, "life always finds a way," and not only are there small life forms on Earth that can survive in outer space, but water is a good shield - life forms 9 to 10 meters below the surface would be protected from the flares while still getting enough life giving photons.

* Because of the universality of the laws of physics and chemistry, it is conceivable that there are universal laws of biology, which are based on physics and chemistry. Not all biologies may discover photosynthesis, as there are many chemical and physical variables within those universal laws, variables that may vary enough that some biologies may not "discover" or even need photosynthesis, or may find alternative versions of photosynthesis that are not needed or were not "discovered" by the biology of our planet. However, chlorophyll is a remarkable molecule; it is a very useful source of energy production for life and so seems highly likely to be popular among life in the universe (though again, that does not rule out exceptions).



References [updated]:
Chen, Min, et. al. "A Red-Shifted Chlorophyll." Science Magazine. 19 August 2010. Web. 21 August 2010. <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/science.1191127>

Berman, Bob. "Sky Lights." Discover Magazine. 23 Feb. 2007. Web. 22 Nov. 2007. <http://discovermagazine.com/2003/jun/featsky>.

"Breakthrough Method System for Understanding Ocean Plant Life." Earth Observation News. 1 Mar. 2005. Web. 22 Nov. 2007. <http://news.eoportal.org/research/050301_unicalifornia.html>.

"Extraterrestrial Landscaping." Discover. July 2007. 15. Print.


Kiang, Nancy. "La Couleur des Plantes Extraterrestres." Astrobiologie. Pour la Science. June 2009. Web. 30 July 2009. [Article is in French].

Lada, Charles J. "Stellar Multiplicity and the IMF: Most Stars Are Single." The Astrophysical Journal Letters. 640, L63-L66. Print. Also found at <http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~clada/pubs_html/binaries.html> (as of 22 November 2007) and reprinted in part at <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/02/060206233911.htm> (as of 22 November 2007).


Meadows, Vikki. "Colors of Alien Plants." Astrobiology Magazine. 1 Oct. 2007. Web. 22 Nov. 2007. <http://www.astrobio.net/news/article2477.html>.

Habitable Zones

Barrie Jones, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at The Open University in the UK, has devised a preliminary algorithm for determining the habitable zone (HZ) around a star. The HZ would vary depending upon the size of the system's star. More work needs to be done, for instance if the question needs to be raised that if

there giant planets too close to the habitable zone, so that an Earth-sized planet would be thrown out into interstellar space by the gravity of the giants?
Also, what would be the parameters of an HZ around a binary or trinary star systems? Right now, there is not enough data, nor enough computer modeling done, to answer those kinds of questions.



Reference:

"Modeling Other Earths."
Astrobiology Magazine. 1 February 2007. 22 November 2007. <http://www.astrobio.net/news/article2225.html>.

Astronomers Map Out Planetary Danger Zone

Astronomers are beginning to refine areas in space where planets can form and survive and where they cannot. An important note in the article is that

"Stars move around all the time, so if one wanders into the danger zone and stays for too long, it will probably never be able to form planets," said Zoltan Balog of the University of Arizona, Tucson, lead author of the new report, appearing May 20 in the Astrophysical Journal ("Astronomers," Par. 3).
So, for a planet around a star in a nebula, small planets may be boiled away before they could finish forming. On planets that did form despite being in the nebula (not all areas of the nebula would be detrimental to planetary formation), life may have a bit of a struggle to hold on - and not only to hold on, but to be able to develop into sentient beings. If their star wanders into a "hot zone" in the nebula (too close to a super hot O type star), it will be blasted by dangerous solar winds and radiation that could, if it stayed too long, strip a planet of its atmosphere, or worst.

Some scientists think our sun was born in such an environment, but was able to keep its planets and move out into calmer regions of space.

Reference:

"Astronomers Map Out Planetary Danger Zone." Spitzer - NASA. 18 March 2006. 22 November 2007. <http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spitzer/news/spitzer-20070418.html>.

Planets thrive around binary star systems

Using the Spitzer space telescope, astronomers have observed that binary (or twin) star systems are just as likely to have planets around them as single star systems (like our own). In fact, some evidence points to planetary systems being more common around tight binary pairs than around single stars (with a possible ratio of 3:1).

A tight binary is where each star circles the other closely, say within 3 A.U.s or closer. A planet in the habitable zone of that system would see double sunsets like what the fictional Luke Skywalker saw on his home planet of Tatooine. The stars could be double gods, twin gods, to a developing sentient culture; though the comments about the trinary system come into play here as well: sentient beings on desert planets may hold water to be a higher deity, or at least the good deity, and sentient beings on water planets may, depending upon environmental conditions, hold underwater volcanoes or volcanic vents to be a higher deity, with the sky an alien, otherworldly place (maybe the afterlife - or hell).

Wide binary systems would have sunsets similar to our own on Earth - the second star would be so far away as to barely interact with the main star and the planets circling it. Sunsets there would have one large sun setting, with the second sun appearing as a bright star. The bright star may hold a place in developing primitive theologies, but, baring other factors (large nearby galaxy visible in the night sky, orbiting a large gas giant that may block the night sky half the time, or if the habitable moon is in phase lock with the gas giant, the sentient beings nocturnal, to name a few), the main star would be the center point.

I suppose it is a small possibility that in some systems the far off twin could have planets about it. What an interesting system that could be if life arose on planets circling each star - each unaware of the other until technological developments allowed one, or both, to spot the other. It would still be quite the feat for each planet to physically visit each other, not until space travel more advanced than what we have now is developed; but at first tentative long range observations, then electronic communication and space probes could establish some kind of communication between the two. What kind of theologies would exist there?

And what would happen for two planetary civilizations to be that "close" to each other to come in contact with each other versus two planetary civilizations from totally different solar systems, separated by much more distance (and thus slower communication, and less likelihood of physical contact). Probably easier to keep such a thing secret from the public, but in a wide binary system, the other civilization would be easier to detect and communicate with, thus making it harder to keep the existence of another civilization secret - not without going through extreme measures like banning all public ownership of telescopes, both optic and radio, and, if they have a planet of sovereign nations, or similar social structures, that would add another layer of difficulty in keeping the other extraplanetary civilization secret.

Reference:

"Alien Sunset." Spitzer - NASA. 29 March 2006. 22 November 2007. <http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spitzer/multimedia/doublesunset.html>.

"NASA Telescope Finds Planets Thrive Around Stellar Twins." Spitzer - NASA. 29 March 2006. 22 November 2007. <http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spitzer/news/spitzer-20070329.html>.

Image:

From Digital Blasphemy <
http://www.digitalblasphemy.com/>.

Sunset in a triple star system (Quicktime Mov)

This video hails from Caltech, the link is <mr.caltech.edu/media/trinary_sunset-low.mov>. I tried to find more information on this (if it was created for a real trinary, or triple, star system discovered), but to no avail. It is intriguing though - think of how many of Earth's cultures held the Sun as a center point to their theologies. It makes logical sense that for most primitive sentient cultures the sun, or suns, that their planet orbits would hold theological importance. Especially for systems where they experienced winters and summers due to the tilt of their planet and the accompanying change in light from their sun(s), or if in a more marked elliptical orbit than mother Earth, and the accompanying change in light from their sun(s).


video


If their planet was stable, in an extremely circular orbit and no noticeable tilt to their planet's axis, maybe other factors may step forward as central.

For instance, on a planet that was 100% covered by water (and there is some evidence such planets may not be all that rare), which was just barely within the extreme limit of the HZ, underwater volcanoes and volcanic vents, with their life giving warmth, may take center stage - the cool and distant light in the world beyond the water's edge a different deity (though since it is bright, and those that would swim to the surface would note its warmth, though cool compared to the vents, maybe it would still have some large role in their theology - the distant rising and falling volcanic god of the afterlife...).

Or for a planet where water was scarce (Dune anyone?), water may become the central deity of Good, and the sun the deity of evil. That is until they become a technological society - but even then, the gods may linger as analogies in new religions.

Or for sentient creatures that were nocturnal - the sun would have quite a different meaning to them than to us. They may even fear the light.

And so, what of a society on a moon circling a large gas giant which itself circles a trinary star system? Would the gas giant become the primary god, and the three light gods secondary? Or would they all share equal footing? Though a few other things to keep in mind is that for a habitable moon that is in phase lock with its parent gas giant, the night side would always face the gas giant, and the day side always face the star. What manner of mythologies could be told from such a stage?

Discovery of new planet similar to Earth

A 2006 movie from the ESA (European Space Agency), describing the discovery of an exosolar system that is similar to ours can be found at: <http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEM0D8NZCIE_FeatureWeek_0.html>.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Humor - deux

Humor affects our culture, our sociology, and our theology. If there are aliens without humor -- how would that affect their biological, psychological, theological and societal realities?

Again, some would say we can't even begin to speculate on that. But I think that is not true. Our minds are wonderfully capable of thinking out of the box, and sometimes way way out of the box. Think quantum mechanics, relativity, and string theory.

But also, again, patterns exist in this universe. Universal patterns exist in this universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics all follow universal, repeatable patterns. I think we can apply logic to the question of alien
biological, psychological, theological and societal realities. True, we don't have all the facts, but since when has that ever stopped humanity from speculating (and from such speculations, gaining ever new knowledge - some of it even useful!).

So, back to the question of humor. One approach to this is to try to examine why we humans have humor. For it seems to me most creatures on this planet do not have humor. Do paramecium laugh, chuckling at some amoeba joke? Most likely not - their awareness is too limited, their ability to notice incongruities also very limited. They can learn, so they can recognize on some very simple level some patterns. But humor? I'd be surprised.

But even more developed creatures do not have humor. Even highly organized social creatures do not have humor. Ants, who live rather short life spans, are too busy working building, maintaining, feeding, and protecting the colony.

But for even higher level creatures, some beginnings of humor seem to be there. Humor in play, for one: wild dolphins seem to show playful behavior, jumping into the air for the sheer pleasure of it. Many mammal young play with each other - though this play is a way to learn. And some of the play is quasi-aggressive behavior: learning how to fight. And some playful behavior is just plain mean: I've seen cats sneak up on each other, startling the one being snuck up upon. They definitely seem to like to tease the one cat in the group that has that Queenly attitude.

Seems, then, with due respect to Dr.
Steven M. Sultanoff, it seems that humor is not just from recognizing incongruity in patterns, dealing with memories of a crisis, the joy of understanding something we at first misunderstood (which is related to the incongruity on a level), or experiencing the forbidden. It seems humor aids in learning, but also can be mean-spirited. It seems that humor is involved in dealing with complex, constantly changing social interactions.

Biologically, humor seems to be related to spindle neurons, which humans and apes both have, and which seemed to have evolved into being over a 15 million year span (so our most ancient ancestors probably didn't have that much of a sense of humor). However, spindle neurons have also been found in the great whales.


As creatures advance in their level of sentience, the more humor there seems to be. But, is it still absolutely necessary? Can other high level sentient beings be able to deal with complex, constantly changing social interactions without developing their equivalent to the spindle neuron. Just because humans (and to some extent apes and maybe even whales) developed a sense of humor doesn't mean that it is truly evolutionarily advantageous or useful. It could be something that has developed that just has a neutral effect on the ability of humans to survive and keep on evolving. In other words, if we never developed humor, maybe it would not have mattered.

But it does give one pause. Like the development of art. Seems the
Neanderthal never developed a true artistic sense, but Cro-magnon eventually did, and when they did, humans were no longer the same. I think that humor is like art - it is the side-effect of being able to deal with complex abstract ideas, especially very complex and very abstract ideas. An intelligent alien species will have to find a way to deal with such complex abstractions as well.

References:

Butovskaya, Marina L. and Alexander G. Kozintsev. "A Neglected Form of Quasi-Aggression in Apes: Possible Relevance for the Origins of Humor." Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Aug. - Oct., 1996), pp. 716-717

Esther A. Nimchinsky et al. "A neuronal morphologic type unique to humans and great apes." Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 96, pp 5268-5273, April 1999. (Can be found at http://www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/96/9/5268.pdf).

Watson, KK, BJ Matthews, and JM Allman. "Brain activation during sight gags and language-dependent humor". Cereb Cortex 17 (2): 314–24. (2007)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Patterns, Seekers, & Religion

We'll get back to the humor, pattern seeking, and sentience in a post or two, but I wanted to touch more about the idea sentient, pattern seeking beings, and spirituality that was only momentarily mentioned.

First, a revisit, rewording, of the musings to the question Why would sentient beings be pattern seekers?

Whether they seek the pattern as individuals, or as some hive mind, seeking patterns is a way to 1) determine, learn, and predict cycles of good and bad weather, feast and famine, good and bad mating opportunities, best and worst hunting or gathering techniques, and other things related to survival of the individual and the species and 2) especially for higher level sentience - to find, learn, and predict "abstract" cycles.

The first is easy - to some degree most any creature with some sentience to it will have some ability to learn patterns. My fish know that when the aquarium light goes on in the morning, it won't be long until I will be feeding them. I visited a Japanese garden in the Bay Area in California when I was a teen and I remember that a Buddhist monk came out and rank a bell - he was clear across the garden (and it was a big garden) but the fish near me all suddenly turned and swam furiously away - toward the bell. This is similar to Pavlov's famous experiment with dogs. To train a creature, it has to learn to recognize and memorize a pattern - a ringing sound means food is a very simple pattern, but an important one for those fish.

Higher level beings gain the ability to recognize, memorize, learn, and predict more complex, and more abstract, patterns. They look outward from themselves, and outward even from the group. They see patterns in the stars, in the galaxies, in the Universe. They detect complex patterns that may take generations to repeat, and pass down that knowledge to others of their kind.

This pattern seeking has a bit of a drawback though. As we've all probably experience or heard about at some time or another in our lives: we see patterns in clouds ("doesn't that one look like a horse?"), patterns in the stars ("doesn't that pattern of stars look like a horse?"), and patterns in nebula's ("doesn't that interstellar nebula look like a horse head?"). We also see patterns in potato chips (chips that look like Elvis, Abraham Lincoln, the state of Nebraska, or the Virgin Mary), in cliffs ("The Old Man of the Mountain"), and even a rabbit, or a Victorian Lady reading a book in the moon. Those who can play with the brain's way processing and recognizing patterns are those that can create optical illusions.

And sometimes we misinterpret patterns - we have causality logic errors; just because one thing happens before another repeatedly doesn't mean that the first is responsible for the second, maybe the both have a shared cause. For instance, the ancient Egyptians noticed that the flood season for the Nile always happened after the "Dog Star" Sirius would make its first appearance for the year. Since Sirius' first appearance always shortly preceded the floods, Sirius was the logical cause since no other could be discovered. However, what the ancient Egyptians didn't realize was that the seasons were caused by Earth having a tilted axis and its travel around the sun, and this also caused the appearance of the night sky to cycle throughout the year as well. Sirius rise and the rise of the Nile's water levels were the result of one shared cause.

And sometimes we oversimplify, or apply a particular logic further than it should go. As I was writing the above paragraph, I realize that many English students struggle with "its" and "it's" - this is because the usual pattern for a possessive (for a word not ending in "s") is to use an apostrophe and then an "s" at the end of the word. Logically, one would think this applies to pronouns as well, but it doesn't. Pronouns have their own logic. They do not use " 's " to create possessives (I - mine, you - yours, she - her, him - his, we - our, they - their, and it - its). Keeping those two patterns straight is a bit of a pain.

OK, great, so what's this to do with spirituality?

The ultimate pattern, the ultimate abstract pattern, is, I believe, that which answers the ultimate abstract questions - why are we here? what is our purpose (beyond the biological purpose of eating, surviving, and reproducing)? Are there higher patterns than the physical? This is the area of ethics, morality, philosophy, and theology - an area I believe most other creatures on this planet do not concern themselves with. It can be argued, that some creatures do have a sense of sorts of a wrong and right - "bad dog" and "good dog" sort of thing; but I think it could be also argued that such awareness is limited (not that having an even limited concept of good and bad isn't still amazing). Last year there were studies that showed that dogs could actually map language - something that was thought only humans could do, and that some birds could actually make and use a tool. Abstract thinking folks, and the kind that requires abstract processing of patterns.

A few side anecdotal stories:

  • My mom had a Manx cat, Mr. Stubbs. I once came around a corner and saw him walking along the mantle - he did not yet see me - and knock over some glass knick-knack. It crashed to the floor and he immediately dived to the floor ran a short distance, curled up like he was asleep but then jerked his head up as if awakened by the crash. To me any animal that can lie, has at least some awareness of the abstract, and has some awareness of good and bad, even if limited. And it seems to me a hint that maybe animals have souls.
  • We had several dogs over the years, and what amazed me about them is that when you got home and found one of them cowering under the table, you knew that it knew that it had done something wrong, and knew it was going to be in trouble when we got home (seems cats lie more readily than dogs, maybe all dogs do go to heaven after all!).
  • One day we can home to find a most interesting sight: the bird cage was knocked over, and our German Shepherd was standing over Mr. Stubbs who was standing over JoyBoy our small, and obnoxious, parrot. They were all frozen - the bird in fear of the cat, the cat in fear of the dog who was going to attack if the cat was going to attack the bird (that dog just loved birds, if she could read, Snoopy would be her hero).
However, while some creatures do show various higher levels of sentience, of abstract thinking, I'm not sure they worship god(s) - oh, sure, the joke goes that cats think they are gods because we take care of them (and the Egyptians did worship them as gods) and dogs think we are gods because we take care of them, but there is no evidence yet of any creature on this planet other than humans that feels an inherent need to worship, and especially in an organized (itself a pattern) way.

Most creatures don't have a need to figure out higher patterns. For instance, the patterns of the seasons -many don't live long enough for that to be of great concern (some don't even live a year, some less than a month, and the adult species of some insects live only a day). But humans live long enough, and have evolved to become hunters and gatherers and farmers. And to be successful farmers, one needs to have a long term understanding of nature. Not only of rain cycles, but the more complex cycles that involve crop rotation, among others.

This need to understand the world around us may be the cause for our need to understand the universe. To make sense of it. Or maybe this need to predict and understand long term cycles created a side-effect - like the process for an incandescent bulb to create light has a side effect of giving off heat - the process of processing more complex, and more abstract, patterns has a side effect of creating a wonder about the meaning for the patterns.

The meaning for the patterns - or, maybe, the pattern behind the pattern. The fish who respond to the bell don't look for the meaning behind the pattern, just that the meaning OF the pattern is food is being delivered. Not why it is delivered when the bell rings, or what is the nature of the bell ring sound, or its cause - what is behind the bell ring? How is the bell ringing created?

But humans - and, I believe by extension, most, if not all, sentient life - look for the meaning for the patterns. It is a higher level of pattern searching. I don't know if an even higher one exists (maybe it does). But this looking for the pattern behind the pattern is what leads to theological questioning.

And so, would it be the natural, logical, common pattern result of the pattern of higher sentience? That is, will most, if not all, alien intelligent sentient beings eventually have theological/philosophical thoughts?

If they do have those thoughts, how would they be similar, and how would they be different, from ours? Some, like the Mormons, feel this question is already answered - all planets have met Christ (it is only on our planet that he was crucified - we, apparently, are the worst brats in the universal family). Others, well, that answer is up in the air (and some Earth religions do not believe any other intelligent race exists in this large universe filled with hundreds of millions of galaxies).

So, how aliens' theologies differ (or echo) ours? It may depend upon how strong their emotions are compared to ours (or if they even have anything equivalent to our emotions). It may depend upon their celestial environment: beings on a planet circling a twin star may develop a whole different line of mythological reasoning than those on a planet circling one star, beings on a planet in a galaxy that is colliding with another galaxy, or in a galaxy very close to two galaxies colliding (such that it is visible to the naked eye) may very well develop a whole different line of mythological reasoning, or beings on a habitable moon circling a gas giant - well, the list goes on.

Though could those different starts have similar endings? Could most arrive to the same conclusion, given enough time? And how would civilizations advanced enough to discover and communicate with other alien civilizations be theologically affected? Would that allow for some ultimate Universal Religion?

I do think there is one thing common with all religions on this planet. Patterns - patterns looking for meaning and purpose and thus patterns looking for order. Order -that is the positive and negative of it.

The positive is that such patterns of understanding and of ultimate order gives us peace, and calm, and strength to endure. It is what defines what is good - for good seems to be that which is order or gives order (that which creates patterns from chaos), and evil is that which is chaos, which destroys. The Ultimate Pattern will show that what may appear to be chaos, is not, for this Ultimate Pattern will explain all, show all, expose all the patterns in the universe, and gives them purpose.

But of course there are false patterns, patterns which seem on the surface to be order, to be constructive, but in the long term are momentary patterns, and thus still chaos, still destructive.
Some use the Great Order, the Ultimate Pattern of religion to impose selfish and shortsighted "order" on others. It is used to control and suppress, and in doing so, to destroy. It is a pattern that can be sustained for it is not a real pattern, or at least not a real Universal Pattern (but merely a local pattern, based just on one person, or one elite group).

Anyway, it seems that maybe most religions will be that which looks to determine, describe, learn, and predict the Ultimate Pattern - the one that explains all other patterns, that gives all other patterns purpose and/or reason, and that exposes the true chaoses.

At least, that will be, for now, the definition I will use when discussing alien theological possibilities. There may be other definitions, but I think for now this is the most useful as a starting point.

Reference:

"The Timeline of...The Old Man and the Mountain."
New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation. 18 Nov 2007. http://www.franconianotchstatepark.com/oldmantimeline.html

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Humor

Why do we have humor? What purpose does it have in terms of evolution, in species survival, and/or in sentience?

I suppose we need to define humor in order to discuss it.

Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, states on the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor web site that:

First, humor is the experience of incongruity. In one's environment the incongruity may be experienced when someone falls down in a situation when they are not expected to fall down, or the incongruity can be between concepts, thoughts, or ideas often illustrated by the punch line of a joke or the caption of a cartoon.


Second, as James Thurber has stated, "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity." We commonly say, "It wasn't funny at the time." Later with distance we can appreciate the humor. This occurs frequently when people are experiencing a crisis, and at some later time the crisis situation is perceived as humorous.


Third, humor can be experienced in the joy of "getting" it. Humor can be the understanding of something that we at first did not comprehend. This occurs everyday in misunderstandings at which we laugh.


Fourth, the experience of the "forbidden" (laughing in church), or "getting away with" something (often seen with children) is often experienced as humorous. [begs the question - why?]


Finally, for me, humor is comprised of three components: wit, mirth, and laughter.


  • Wit is the cognitive experience,

  • mirth the emotional experience, and

  • laughter the physiological experience.

We often equate laughter with humor, but you do not need to laugh to experience humor. (Sultanoff, Par. 1 - 6)

It would seem that sentience requires the ability to analyze the environment, looking for patterns, and making predictions. To be able to look for patterns enables a creature to understand its environment, to predict danger, or to predict or make "educated guesses" at the best area to find food depending upon the season or time of day for instance. The better the ability to predict danger and to find food, the better the chances of survival. This also helps the creature to adapt to changes. Simple creatures may not have to worry about such changes or the need to predict - plankton normally has no need to actively seek out the sun, water, nutrients, or even a mate. They have short life spans, spent mostly in reproducing (they reproduce very quickly). There is safety in numbers, and, for the species, in reproducing quickly.


However, creatures that feed on plankton, and the creatures that feed on those creatures and so up the chain have increasing needs that require increasing ability to analyze, to seek, to hide, to protect, to find a mate, and so forth. They need to spend more energy on finding a mate, in raising young (more complex creatures tend to need to be protected as they grow and mature), in finding food, and in defending themselves than do simple creatures. Thus, they have an increasing need to look for patterns and make predictions. If humor is "the experience of incongruity" then is humor the unavoidable consequence of developing sentience?


Some think that humor is what distinguishes high level sentience, or real sentience, from artificial sentience (computers, robots). For instance, in the movie Short Circuit, Number 5 proves he is alive by laughing at a joke (though it did take him awhile to get it). Though in Star Trek, Data, before he puts in his emotion chip, doesn't understand humor, yet is considered essentially to be an individual, a high level sentient life form, though not "complete" until he inserts the emotion chip and acquires humor. Vulcans supposedly do not have humor, but in actuality they have emotions, they just suppress them. So in the Star Trek universe, if you are an organic sentient intelligence, you have humor, and if you are inorganic, humor still is a completing step toward full high level sentience

Another question comes to mind: what does this mean spiritually? If humor is the experience of incongruity, and the joy of getting it, then for an omnipresent, omnipotent being, can such humor exist for them?

And finally, if a creature doesn't have emotion, can they still experience a form of humor?


Reference:


Sultanoff, Steven M., PhD. "What is Humor?" Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. 1995. 13 November 2007. <http://www.aath.org/articles/art_sultanoff01.html> (originally published in Therapeutic Humor (Smr 1995, Vol. IX, 3, p. 1-2)).